Environmental Defenders of McHenry County: Sustaining the Effort to Help Mother Earth

For half a century, this volunteer-driven nonprofit has led the way on efforts to heep our planet healthy. Their work takes them to some pretty interesting places.

When the Fox Valley Freeway was proposed in 1969, it was intended to run north-south through Crystal Lake, following a route right through the Fox River watershed. A group of concerned citizens from the Barrington area had other plans.

In February 1970, the Defenders of the Fox joined similar-minded people from McHenry County and stopped the freeway.

More than 50 years later, their mission has changed but their mindset remains laser-focused on a healthy environment in northwest Chicagoland. The group now known as Environmental Defenders of McHenry County continues its mission of preserving and protecting the environment and educating people on how they can help.

The grassroots nonprofit cultivates strong ecological connections between humans and Mother Earth through educational programs, boots-on-the-ground volunteer work and numerous interactions with the public.

“We have a close relationship with the county and several cities and villages within it that open a lot of doors for us to build those relationships between people, the ecosystem and the environment,” says Destiny Seaton, communications and member specialist for the Defenders. “A lot of people care about these issues.”

The Defenders operate five action teams, but few are quite as recognizable as its Recycling Action Team. Its volunteers operate five annual recycling events in partnership with the McHenry County Health Department so the general public can drop off unwanted textiles, electronics, light bulbs and batteries. McHenry County College’s annual Green Guide, created in conjunction with the Defenders, lists dozens of other recycling opportunities covering everything from batteries to motor oil.

The public is also invited to drop off unwanted materials at the Defenders’ three Styrofoam recycling centers every Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Algonquin Township Road District, 3702 Northwest Highway, in Crystal Lake; any time at the Village of Algonquin Public Works Facility, 110 Meyer Dr., in Algonquin; and 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the City of Woodstock Public Works garage, 326 Washington St., in Woodstock.

Meanwhile, the public may also recognize the Defenders for their work operating two volunteer-run bookstores. The Green Read, in downtown Crystal Lake, and The Green Spot, on the Woodstock Square, are filled with thousands of gently used books of all genres, all of them donated to the Defenders. Shoppers may also find new puzzles in addition to handcrafted and sustainably made gifts.

While the stores are a convenient fundraising mechanism and public relations touchpoint, they also help the Defenders to impact the environment in small ways.

“It’s a really nice opportunity to tell them a little bit about the Defenders, and we can also talk about the sheer number of books we’ve kept out of landfills,” says Kim Hankins, organization president. “We sold 17,000 books last year and 21,000 the year before.”

Education goes hand-in-hand with many of the Defenders’ activities, and their efforts reach all ages, from programs that teach schoolchildren about sustainability to programs aimed at helping adults to change their impact on the planet.

Last year, the Defenders partnered with McHenry County Department of Planning and Development to offer Friday afternoon talks with the public. Aimed at best practices, talks and tours, these public events have introduced local residents to environmental issues they may not know about. The events were also a chance for the Defenders to connect with the decisionmakers whose work directly impacts these topics. Past talks have focused on topics such as solar power for businesses and smarter approaches to salting icy roads and sidewalks.

Another Defenders team, focused on waste reduction, takes the mission even further, helping restaurants, schools and churches to reduce the amount of material that goes into a landfill. Eliminating single-use plastic (such as straws) and composting biodegradable food scraps are just a few ways these organizations can reduce the impact of an estimated 150 million tons of single-use plastic discarded every year and 1.4 billion tons of food wasted every year in America, according to research by national recycling firm RTS. Last year, the Defenders held two sustainability summits that put the issue front and center for local businesses.

“Being from Tennessee, it was a big surprise to me to come here and see how passionate people in this county are about the environment,” says Seaton. “And it’s everyone. There’s no partisan line. Everyone cares about the environment because it’s their home and it’s where they live.”

While volunteer work drives much of the Environmental Defenders’ work, it does take funding to keep everything going, and paid memberships are a major source of revenue. Members get insider advantages such as receiving a newsletter, tapping into expertise, accessing member-only events and feeling the satisfaction of continuing the mission. Of course, non-member volunteers are needed, too.

“You don’t have to be a member to volunteer,” Seaton says. “Sometimes, if people can’t afford the membership, they can work with us. We just want people to be involved.”

Always engaging with the public, the Defenders offer other ways to get involved. On the first Wednesday of every month, they co-sponsor Green Drinks, a free in-person and online event hosted at Duke’s Kitchen and Alehouse in Crystal Lake. People are invited to discuss sustainability and environmental issues over dinner and drinks, often in the company of a speaker highlighting topics such as solar power or dragonfly nymphs.

For McHenry County’s sizable Latino population, the Defenders also host Conversacións de Conservación, a coalition that offers bilingual outreach, programs and collaborations. This coalition also connects local youth with Defenders scholarships, which are open to all future college students in the county who have an interest in the environment.

In Marengo, volunteers with the Defenders and Paddle the Kish are cleaning out segments of the Kishwaukee River to make it navigable. Their work also involves picking up trash, writing grants and documenting stories from those who have fished, walked or paddled the Kishwaukee River between Millstream and County Line roads.

Defenders volunteers are even involved in ecological restoration projects, where they’re helping to remove invasive species from local green spaces and replace them with native plants.

Interested volunteers or sponsors – both individuals and businesses – can visit mcdef.org to find out more and how to get started with the Defenders.

Indeed, there are many ways to support our region’s environment. The possibilities are endless and always evolving for this organization.

“The door is always open for new people and new ideas,” Seaton says. “That was one of my favorite things when I started at the organization. We don’t just talk about doing things. We do things.”